Review: Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro

by Stephen Tall on October 19, 2016

Too Much Happinessmunro, Alice Munro

This is the fourth novel plucked from my #40booksby40 list.

I’m going to start with the one negative: reading a collection of short stories one after the other isn’t (at least for me) a great way to enjoy them. It’s wearying. Better by far to dip in and out; but that’s a lousy way to get through a list, so, reader, I rattled through them.

(There is, incidentally, a wonderful quote from a character who disdains a books when she realises it’s a collection of short stories, not a novel: “It seems to diminish the book’s authority, making the author seem like somebody who is just hanging on to the gates of Literature, rather than safely settled inside.”)

The positives are overwhelming. Munro takes the most sensationalist stories imaginable – sex creeps, child murders, child murderers, self-mutilation – and deftly unwraps them with a genteel but unsparing economy of language.

Occasionally hints are dropped to prime final-page reveals; more often the stories are left hanging, unresolved, yet it’s impossible to feel cheated. How can you when, in 30-or-so pages, you feel like you inhabit the protagonist?

The final, title story is something else: a mini-biography of a real historical figure, Sophia Kovalevsky, a C.19th Russian polymath, which imagines her life in back-and-forth swirls. The effect is dizzyingly, tragically brilliant.